Out of the BL quagmire was born the SD1. A crowning glory that overcame production woes to become one of the most famous Rover designs.
Success in racing and even rallying helped build the reputation of the formidable Vitesse and it remains a desirable machine to this day. IAN SEABROOK harks back to the glory days when the SD1 simply trounced the opposition.
Legend that nearly made it…
THE 1970s were not a happy decade for British Leyland – old rivals found themselves suddenly working and competing within the same organisation. BL soon had to consolidate a rather messy portfolio of marques. On top of this, there was the need to replace older models. The Triumph and Rover 2000 models had been competing since launch in 1963, and the replacement of both was a key consideration.
1969 saw each company start work on their own replacements – completely independently. Things came to a head in 1971 when BL Management chose which design would proceed to production. The Rover design – what became the SD1 – was a striking, low-profile concoction from the pen of David Bache, won the day ahead of a more conventional Michelotti design from Triumph, and adding further insult to injury, it was decided that the new car would be marketed solely as a Rover, and there was to be no Triumph-badged replacement for its 2000.
Use of the Rover V8 engine was a simple enough decision – the unit powered the P5, P6 and the Range Rover, and impressed for its smoothness, power and relative lack of thirst. The design itself uld be much-simplified compared to the radical base-unit monocoque and De Dion rear axle of the P6. The SD1 would use a comparatively simple live axle with coil springing and a Watts Linkage. In practice, this change would not be apparent to most drivers and the handling of the SD1 was never called into question.
Development continued and the Rover SD1 was unveiled in July 1976. It certainly caused jaws to drop with its sportscar looks, complete lack of a grille between the headlamps and a practical hatchback at the rear. It was enough to allow the SD1 to win Car of the Year in 1977. Sadly, the initial promise was once again dashed by strike action, shoddy build quality and reliability… a real case of potential unfulfilled.
And so, to competition
From small beginnings…
In 1980, the British Saloon Car Championship regulations raised the permissible capacity for largest class from 3 litres to 3.5 litres. Technically, the 3528cc engine was still over but tolerances enabled the engine to squeeze in as 3495cc. The Triumph TR8 has already proven very useful as a race and rally machine – proving that the Rover V8 was the engine for the job of flying the flag for BL.
But why take a big, executive saloon to the races? There were several reasons: the SD1 was a very low and aerodynamic design, the rear axle was very well located and suited to track use, the wide track helped with the handling, and finally, the simple suspension design made it easy to upgrade springing and other components as necessary.
Not everyone within Rover was convinced about this plan but John Davenport, director of BL Motorsport, managed to drum up enough support to gain approval to develop a racing variant of the SD1. Work began in 1979, and Davenport approached David Price Racing to develop the first racer. Testing throughout 1979 proved the concept could be successful and two cars were ready to contest the 1980 season.
Jeff Allam and Motor magazine’s Rex Greenslade were the drivers for 1980 – and with 250bhp on tap, they were well equipped to battle with cars such as Win Percy’s Mazda RX7 (which was prepared by Tom Walkinshaw Racing). The RX7 was dominant that year, but the SD1 did manage a win at Brands Hatch, following a clever tyre choice by Allam – and Rover also notched up first place in the Empire Trophy. This promising start encouraged the dissenters within Rover, and discussions commenced on what was the best way to attack the 1981 season. Tom Walkinshaw Racing tendered an attractive deal and so began a relationship that would last until 1986 and the end of the SD1 era.
1981 proved to be a good year for the SD1 as further wins were achieved. The battle in Group 1 was between the SD1 and the rival Capris raced by the Gordon Spice team. The SD1 clocked up six wins out of eleven rounds with four of those being a 1-2 finish. 1982 was another successful venture and the SD1 took home the overall class title.
The Rover Vitesse is launched
By now, the SD1 had established something of a sporting reputation. Marketing were keen for a more sporting derivative to make the most of this and the racing team were keen for performance parts to be homologated for racing. It was this combination of requirements which allowed the development of perhaps the most famous SD1 – the Vitesse.
Launched to the world in 1982, the Vitesse featured stiffer suspension, fuel injection and a rear spoiler which did actually generate downforce – rather than acting as a mere styling appendage. As the SD1 proved itself on the circuit, so sales of the fastest Rover ever produced took off and it remains a car recalled fondly by car enthusiasts today.
The Vitesse improvements didn’t reach the race track until 1983 but they made a huge difference. The SD1 completely dominated the season completely winning every round. There was now 290bhp on offer and while oversteer could still be an issue, it was somewhat tamed by the downforce offered by that big rear spoiler. A real achievement was the win during the RAC Tourist Trophy in very wet conditions. Even the formidable Jaguar XJ-S racers were forced to concede to the SD1 with Steve Soper and Rene Metge scooping the win.
The 1983 British Saloon Car Championship was sealed up nicely. Or so Rover thought. In June 1983, one of the BMW teams lodged a formal complaint about the SD1 claiming that the rear wheelarches of the Rovers were over-sized and that the engine contained non-homologated parts. In fact, it was thought that the engines were actually using Volvo rockers as these had been used on the TR8 rally cars using the same basic V8 engine. The counter claim was that the covers had been ‘found’ at the Solihull factory and used in good will. However, following a lengthy enquiry which even ended up at the High Court, Rover was stripped of the championship proving that anything to do with British Leyland seemed to be jinxed.
The decision took so long to be made that the 1984 season had already commenced. However, on hearing the news, the Rover team was withdrawn mid-season – the SD1 works cars would now compete only in the European Touring Car series.
The SD1 was not entirely out of the running in the BSCC however. Andy Rouse enjoyed great success in his privately entered SD1 and scooped the 1984 championship. No disputing it this time – the SD1 was the British champion.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the SD1 was taking the battle to the turbocharged Volvos but controversy was not far away. This time however, the company in the spot-light was Volvo. It built the necessary 500 cars for homologation but then stripped 477 cars of their special components and sold them as normal saloons. This caused a lot of upset and while not technically illegal, was not really in the spirit of the regulations. Rover, meanwhile, was having no trouble shifting Vitesses, so had no need for such under-hand tactics.
1985 was a battle royale between the blocky Volvos and the sleek, British executive express. Could there be two more unlikely track racers? In the end, the Volvo was dominant – but then, with 340bhp on tap, it should have been, even if it did display all of the aerodynamic properties of an Ikea wardrobe.
For 1986 however, the mighty twin-plenum Vitesse became available. The twin throttle plenum chambers were developed by Lotus to improve engine breathing. In truth, road cars did not really notice the difference although these are now the rarest and most coveted of SD1s. Allied to the hotter camshaft employed by the racing teams however, the Vitesse received a useful power boost.
The difference was certainly apparent in the results. A BSCC Grands Prix supporter race at Brands Hatch saw Jeff Allam take the win with Rovers taking five of the top six places. Ironically, this was during July which coincided with the launch of the 800, the SD1s Honda-derived replacement. The Rover then clocked up wins at Monza, Donington and the RAC Tourist Trophy. Win Percy came home second at Estoril which was enough to put him one point ahead of Roberto Ravaglia’s BMW.
Another slice of controversy
All was yet again not how it seemed however. 1986 had been dogged by several protests and Volvo and Ford found themselves falling foul of the regulations for slightly-oversized fuel tanks and illegal fuel. But by far the worst problem befell Win Percy – FISA (Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile) suddenly remembered that in January, they had announced that the worst five results would be removed from everyone’s total points tally rather than the four of the previous year.
Following recalculation, the SD1 was stripped of yet another trophy. Plot lines like these would surely make a good film – although audiences would surely claim that such a crazy set of circumstances would never happen in real life! Rover and Volvo decided that enough was enough and neither returned for the 1987 season.
Aside from the works cars however, privateer teams were having more success with the SD1. Kurt Thiim won the German Touring Car (DTM) championship ahead of Mercedes 190s and BMWs while Tim Harvey notched up a BSCC championship in 1987 driving a Vitesse. Austin-Rover may not have been directly involved with these achievements but they certainly did the groundwork which made these victories possible.
The SD1 goes rallying
The Triumph TR7 and TR8 had been fairly successful as rally cars so perhaps it was a logical step for the big Rover to take on the baton following the retirement of these wedgy twins. The SD1 seemed to fit the bill and one was tested over the winter of 1981/82. With four twin-choke Webers, there was a meaty 290bhp. The project was given the go-ahead with long-distance rallying in mind and the development team began to eye-up the 1983 Paris-Dakar – which, in typical ‘luck of the Rover’ fashion was cancelled.
During 1982, the cars were driven in several Middle East rallies but this was not the success expected and there were numerous reliability issues. The cars were sold off and rally plans were put on hold.
Tom Walkinshaw saw potential in the SD1 however and he managed to gain approval to develop and build a fresh set of rally cars for 1983. The SD1 had an outing at the annual Austin-Rover Rallysprint event at Donington Park. This event was packed full of well-known racing drivers including a young Nigel Mansell, John Watson, Derek Warwick, Stiq Blomqvist and Jimmy McRae. Tony Pond, who drove for Austin-Rover, was the firm favourite but he was pipped to the post by Mansell in an SD1 face-off.
The SD1 would never be a world-beater in rallying but on home soil, it would prove very handy with Ken Wood and Peter Brown taking the Scottish Rally Championship in 1984.
By 1986, the frankly-barking MG Metro 6R4 was the rally tool of choice and the SD1 competed no more although privateers would continue to use the big Rover.
So there you have it. The SD1 was almost a huge success in racing and not really a contender in rallying. It sadly reflected the life of the production car – should have done better. All the ingredients were there but a few careless choices (and plenty of bad luck) conspired against Austin-Rover to leave the trophy cabinet far emptier than had been hoped.
While success may have been hard to come by, the exposure generated by the mighty V8 roaring around race tracks and rally circuits certainly helped give fresh impetus to the Rover name and helped SD1 sales, especially of the Vitesse. Such was the impact of this model that there would be a Rover 800 Vitesse to keep the name going. While nothing at all like the SD1, the 800 managed some success of its own including the famous feat of lapping the Isle of Man TT course at over 100mph in the capable hands of Tony Pond.
Going racing had been tough but in terms of restoring the damaged Rover name to a position of health, it had been invaluable.
All pictures in this gallery were supplied by Achim Küpper and Rene Winters.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.